For anyone not familiar with the publishing industry, the first major step to a book deal is querying agents. Most publishing houses will only accept manuscripts that have been accepted and vetted by literary agents. But querying is hard. Like, college-essay-meets-bad-breakup hard. Every agent asks for something different in a query letter, but they generally boil down to a pitch for your novel, a short bio, comp titles (where you compare your book against other similar books), word count, and genre, all within about three to four hundred words. Add to this herculean feat the emotional investment you have in your novel, and you're looking at weeks of rocking in the fetal position before you even start writing your letter.
It’s safe to say that I spent more time researching query letters, agents, and agencies than I did actually querying (at least the hands-on part… that doesn’t include the months of waiting and hours spent weeping into mugs of tea). Many, many words have been written on how to write a good query letter, so I hesitate to add any more. But I do want to share a few resources that directly helped me create a successful query letter—one that landed me my fantastic agent, and ultimately, my book deal. We’ll begin with the greatest of them all (for me, anyway), Query Shark.
Janet Reid is a literary agent with FinePrint Literary Management, but I’m convinced she must be some kind of minor deity in whatever religion authors adhere to (Orthodox Caffeination?). In her time off from being a full-time agent, she runs a constantly-updated, scrupulously-detailed blog in which aspiring authors send her their query letters—and she slays them. She picks them apart line by line, revising them until they’re ready to officially query. I’ve seen her revise the same letter six, seven, eight times, all on her own time, all for free. The only stipulation is that those edits are then posted on her blog for hapless writers like you and me to learn from.
She recommends reading every single post in her archives. I urge you to do the same, and here’s why. Before I read her blog, I had written what I thought was a fairly passable query letter. Once I found her blog, I started reading. And reading and reading. After reading every single post all the way back to 2004 (it took me weeks, but there are no shortcuts in this industry), I realized there are approximately infinity number of ways to make a mistake in a query letter, and I had made about 75 percent of them (you do the math).
I’m not going to summarize her advice, because a) it is numerous and nuanced, b) you’re better off doing your own research, and c) she has a much cleverer voice than mine. But I will share the Ultimate Magic Formula, the greatest gift Ms. Reid gave me. There are two remarkably straightforward formulas for getting the right information into your query and for making the most of every single word. Think of them as those fill-in-the-blank thank-you cards you had to send after birthday parties, only with a potential book deal riding on the outcome. Here they are. I used the latter.
The main character must decide whether to ___. If (s)he decides to do this, the consequences/outcome/peril (s)he faces are ___. If (s)he decides NOT to do this, the consequences/outcome /peril (s)he faces are ___.
I hesitate to post my query letter, because I’m afraid the Query Shark will find it and tear it apart, but seeing as it’s done its job and gotten me an agent and a publisher, here’s the bulk of it:
Dear Ms. Noble,
This plus the right amount of bio and optimal formatting for word count, comps, and genre (READ HER ENTIRE BLOG!) is ultimately (I think) what got me through the slush pile and in front of my agent’s eyeballs. Querying is hard, convoluted, subjective work. Fortunately, there are generous, snarky spirits like Ms. Reid out there to guide the wandering writer. Blessed be the rich in snark!
You can find Janet Reid’s blog, Query Shark, at http://queryshark.blogspot.com/.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator